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Source Manager’s Journal: The Four Horsemen of the Managerial Apocalypse

June 30, 2008 — Pestilence, war, famine and death. The biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. When we look at organizations, we can see that these apocalyptic forces have organizational equivalents, forces whose results may not be quite as devastating, but are, nevertheless, highly destructive.
In recent decades, the focus of organizational discussion has shifted from management to "leadership." One result of this is that links between the upper levels of organizations and what used to be known as the "shop floor" have often been weakened or even lost. In many ways, the business cult of the CEO has been mimicked in government and the non-profit sector, and "leadership" has come to be seen as the key to excellence and success.
In our service economy, the shop floor is now usually the point of contact with the customer, client or service user. And what these managers and staff do comes under the heading of "operations" and customer service. In most organizations, those involved in operations are never going to make the big money and are not seen as occupying prestigious positions. Those rewards are mostly reserved to top leaders and the financial and marketing people. And in government, fewer people than in the past rise through the ranks to become top leaders.
The disconnect between leadership and the "shop floor" has real consequences. It is an important source of the Four Horsemen of the Managerial Apocalypse. These destructive forces are: uncertainty, ambiguity, mistrust and temptation. Like their biblical counterparts, the organizational versions are often connected to one another.
Uncertainty
Uncertainty flows from various sources and takes different forms, but its outcomes are almost invariably bad. Creating uncertainty can be a strategy. For example, the Bush Administration has sought to create uncertainty with respect to its intentions toward Iran. It believes that this uncertainty will produce fear and lead the Iranian government to capitulate to its demands. At the corporate level, the tobacco and oil industries have systematically sought to create uncertainty to undermine scientific findings relative to cigarettes and cancer and the reality of global warming. Their highly successful strategy is described in detail in "Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health" by David Michaels. The strategy is almost invariably intended to produce doubt, which, in turn, immobilizes people and blocks actions that these industries oppose.
Uncertainty at the organizational level has the same impact. It is usually not the result of strategic choices. Organizational uncertainty is typically the product of a leadership or management deficiency or failure. For some managers, it is stylistic. They believe, contrary to all evidence, that it is good to keep people "off balance." Others fear making clear decisions because they feel that they have insufficient evidence or that they will be blamed if things go wrong. So they send mixed messages.
Still others simply don’t know what it means to be a leader or a manager and produce a climate of uncertainty. There is a wonderful line in the film "Back to School" when the star Rodney Dangerfield, the head of a totally screwed up large-men’s clothing company, instructs his secretary to "hold some of my calls." What is the secretary to do? Which calls are to be held? Based on what? The result: uncertainty and immobility.
Uncertainty in the Virgin Islands has a particular flavor. Read The Source and you find all kinds of examples. Meetings that cannot do business because there isn’t a quorum. Work or assignments that simply aren’t done. People who aren’t where they are supposed to be. The cumulative result of this accumulation of little non-strategic actions is pervasive doubt and a lack of confidence in the ability to achieve the most reasonable outcomes. There is a kind of certainty of uncertainty. Is it possible that this form of uncertainty is the source of the wonderful and frequently used phrase that someone is "spreading confusion?"
I once worked with an organization in which the leader would typically give two of her deputies different answers to the same question. Not good. She would also invariably start meetings late, so participants would circle around without going into the room until critical mass was achieved. Needless to say, it often wasn’t. The result was a frozen organization, unable to take action and execute.
Think about organizations that you have been in where there were high levels of uncertainty. Not a good feeling. And it is unlikely that these organizations were very effective. Effectiveness flows from everyone pulling in the same direction. Uncertainty results in everyone standing still. Uncertainty is also linked to our other horsemen. Next week: Ambiguity.
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, a management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.

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June 30, 2008 -- Pestilence, war, famine and death. The biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. When we look at organizations, we can see that these apocalyptic forces have organizational equivalents, forces whose results may not be quite as devastating, but are, nevertheless, highly destructive.
In recent decades, the focus of organizational discussion has shifted from management to "leadership." One result of this is that links between the upper levels of organizations and what used to be known as the "shop floor" have often been weakened or even lost. In many ways, the business cult of the CEO has been mimicked in government and the non-profit sector, and "leadership" has come to be seen as the key to excellence and success.
In our service economy, the shop floor is now usually the point of contact with the customer, client or service user. And what these managers and staff do comes under the heading of "operations" and customer service. In most organizations, those involved in operations are never going to make the big money and are not seen as occupying prestigious positions. Those rewards are mostly reserved to top leaders and the financial and marketing people. And in government, fewer people than in the past rise through the ranks to become top leaders.
The disconnect between leadership and the "shop floor" has real consequences. It is an important source of the Four Horsemen of the Managerial Apocalypse. These destructive forces are: uncertainty, ambiguity, mistrust and temptation. Like their biblical counterparts, the organizational versions are often connected to one another.
Uncertainty
Uncertainty flows from various sources and takes different forms, but its outcomes are almost invariably bad. Creating uncertainty can be a strategy. For example, the Bush Administration has sought to create uncertainty with respect to its intentions toward Iran. It believes that this uncertainty will produce fear and lead the Iranian government to capitulate to its demands. At the corporate level, the tobacco and oil industries have systematically sought to create uncertainty to undermine scientific findings relative to cigarettes and cancer and the reality of global warming. Their highly successful strategy is described in detail in "Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health" by David Michaels. The strategy is almost invariably intended to produce doubt, which, in turn, immobilizes people and blocks actions that these industries oppose.
Uncertainty at the organizational level has the same impact. It is usually not the result of strategic choices. Organizational uncertainty is typically the product of a leadership or management deficiency or failure. For some managers, it is stylistic. They believe, contrary to all evidence, that it is good to keep people "off balance." Others fear making clear decisions because they feel that they have insufficient evidence or that they will be blamed if things go wrong. So they send mixed messages.
Still others simply don’t know what it means to be a leader or a manager and produce a climate of uncertainty. There is a wonderful line in the film "Back to School" when the star Rodney Dangerfield, the head of a totally screwed up large-men’s clothing company, instructs his secretary to "hold some of my calls." What is the secretary to do? Which calls are to be held? Based on what? The result: uncertainty and immobility.
Uncertainty in the Virgin Islands has a particular flavor. Read The Source and you find all kinds of examples. Meetings that cannot do business because there isn’t a quorum. Work or assignments that simply aren’t done. People who aren’t where they are supposed to be. The cumulative result of this accumulation of little non-strategic actions is pervasive doubt and a lack of confidence in the ability to achieve the most reasonable outcomes. There is a kind of certainty of uncertainty. Is it possible that this form of uncertainty is the source of the wonderful and frequently used phrase that someone is "spreading confusion?"
I once worked with an organization in which the leader would typically give two of her deputies different answers to the same question. Not good. She would also invariably start meetings late, so participants would circle around without going into the room until critical mass was achieved. Needless to say, it often wasn’t. The result was a frozen organization, unable to take action and execute.
Think about organizations that you have been in where there were high levels of uncertainty. Not a good feeling. And it is unlikely that these organizations were very effective. Effectiveness flows from everyone pulling in the same direction. Uncertainty results in everyone standing still. Uncertainty is also linked to our other horsemen. Next week: Ambiguity.
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, a management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.